Thursday, March 19, 2020

Mini Reviews | Forgotten Train Wrecks

I'm not quite sure what it is about man-made disasters that make it impossible to look away. I am especially intrigued when it is an event that has occurred in the early 1900s, or earlier. I think part of it is because I compare everything of this nature to September 11. I think part of it is looking how we responded valiantly and also failed to on that day with all the resources we have now, and then looking to the past to see what they did or did not do with the resources they had. We are not nearly as far removed from mishandling disaster as we think we are - the last two months are proof positive of that.

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Apparently I am one of the only people who has never heard of this accident, or the controversy over who wrote the song that so many know. Semi-related, the Old 97s were the band that Jennifer Aniston's character got tickets to see in The Break-Up and now the name makes sense, or at least the reference does.

If there is anyone else who does not know this story, a quick recap:

Fast Mail train No. 97 was behind schedule, operated by a newer engineer who had previously worked freight trains, so he was already at a disadvantage because he was not totally familiar with the engine he was driving. On September 27th, 1903, this would end tragically when the train derailed, falling from the trestle and crashing into the ravine below. In all, eleven people were killed, including the engineer, so we will never know exactly what happened in those last moments before the accident, nor will we ever know whether speed, his lack of experience with mail trains, or anything else played a part, or how big their roles might have been.

The author did a fantastic job of gathering sources and putting together the story. I did find in places it became repetitive, but overall that was not an issue. I found it to be a highly engaging read on a topic I knew nothing about. His use of primary documents - the eyewitness reports, court transcripts/testimonies, and interviews with descendants of those involved - aided him well in bringing readers back in time to that terrible day.

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I stumbled across this book at the same time as I found the story of the Old 97 and found this story to be as engaging as the one above. In comparing the two, I feel like this one had a lot more information to offer, but this may be simply because this train was hauling passengers and not solely mail, so there were many more eye-witnesses and survivors to speak to.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story to me, and also the saddest, is the fact that we will never know exactly how many victims might have died in the crash. This has happened for two main reasons, first being that there could have been passengers on the train who we do not know about, perhaps people who had no family to miss them should they have disappeared suddenly. The second reason for this is that after the train cars burned, those who had been crushed when the car on its side slid off the track and pancaked onto the one below, remains were indistinguishable.  These remains were collected and buried in a mass grave, which has since been lost to time. Imagine what peace might be brought to descendants who never knew what happened to elder family members' loved ones. Imagine those who were alone being given the dignity of their own final resting place.

I bring this up because the author touches on this very real possibility with a man by the name of John Dowell. The author states this man was very likely on the train and killed in the crash, those his name goes unrecorded in history and would remain unknown had his friends never spoken of him, or gotten his name mentioned in a Georgia newspaper in relation to possibly having been on the train. And if Dowell is quite likely a victim, it stands to reason that there could have been others as well; the official death toll is recorded for posterity as 17 souls, but this total is probably too low.

This story has all the makings of a truly horrific accident. Despite making great gains in technology and the ways of travel, trains were still somewhat of a gamble. Rail workers were killed in alarming numbers and train wrecks were remarkably uncommon, so it is not totally surprising that people have not heard of these incidents before, at least outside of the area where they occurred. This particular wreck occurred due not to a mistake of man, but the fury of Mother Nature. This area in Virginia had seen terrible rain storms for days and nights, flash flooding that prohibited travel, washed out railways, left debris on the tracks, and more. Rail workers did their best to keep tracks clear for travel day or night, but what can you do when it is time for your shift, but you are trapped in your home due to rising flood waters, and you have to evacuate your wife and young child to the second level of your home so none of you die?

So we've got rain pouring, low visibility, lack of ability to communicate in any reliable way, and tracks about to get washed out and collapse under the weight of the train. Not only that, but the engine will fall into the ravine below, pulling several cars with it. Men, women, and children were either killed instantly, suffered painful deaths, or managed to escape with minimal injury. Some of the descriptions of injuries were truly horrifying, stories of people scaled by the steam from the boilers, while the boiler also sparked and quickly ignited anything that would burn - including those still trapped within the cars.

While like the above book that I spoke of, this book did also sometimes suffer from repetition. We hear quite a bit about a trio of young men traveling together and how devastated their town and families were in learning of their deaths. But, I also appreciated that we knew so much more about so many of the employees and passengers and it made the story come to life all the more.

As is true in every disaster, something like this brings out both the best and worst in others. There were stories of people who lived nearby coming to the site immediately to help however they could, of people running back to the previous station (communication lines were down) to bring help that way, and more. Survivors, both men and women, worked tirelessly to try to save others until the fire raged, preventing them from rescuing any others. The worst came in the form of some survivors scrambling to safety and never returning to assist, leaving others behind to die. Or scavengers, rushing to the crash site under the guise of helping, but in reality only there to pilfer whatever valuables they could from the survivors, the dead, and the dying.

In one of the final sections, the author provided brief biographies of every person known or thought to be on the train. When possible, we are given birth dates, home towns, and whatever information is still available to us now. Sometimes that was simply their job title at the rail company. Other times we might get a paragraph or two detailing the person's life.

I found this to be a highly readable account of a terrible wreck. The author has done much research to provide as much information as possible.


  1. brings to mind the late mishaps in Canada and here in Oregon with derailed oil trains... sometimes lessons just don't sink in...

    1. Yes! it doesn't surprise me that accidents happen (and continue to happen), but that they occurred SO OFTEN that they were not usually reported.

  2. Reminds me of earthquakes and fires I have lived through.

    1. And so many go unreported, right? I feel like fires are reported on far more often now, but didn't get the coverage needed until the Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise (where one of my closest friends lives! Their house was spared and nearly every other house around them was destroyed.)


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